Bear to Emerald Lake | One of the best hikes in Estes Park
5am, the alarm rings. There’s only one thing that motivates me to get out of bed at that ungodly hour and it’s early-morning landscape photography. Today’s experience: Rocky Mountain National Park.
I had planned to hike the Bear Lake trailhead for some time now. It attracted me because I would be able to see 4 beautiful lakes (Bear, Nymph, Dream and Emerald Lake) in one hike. It was the end of May and the brilliant part about this trail was that it felt like we were going through two different season in the span of a few hours.
I must admit the beginning of the hike was tough for me. Being asthmatic, I’m always worried about hiking in higher altitudes. I was slower than usual and every step took a lot of energy but I quickly forgot all of this when I started seeing the gorgeous Colorado landscapes.
The first stop on the hike was Nymph Lake.
The water was like glass, giving me those perfect reflections that photographers dream about. I had never been that excited to do landscape photography. I kept saying “this can’t be real”, “it’s not possible”.
This is when you get your first glimpse of Hallett Peak. You can see it perched perfectly in between the two rocky mounds surrounding the lake.
After Nymph Lake it’s an upward march to the next one. We passed beautiful backdrops of trees and mountains. After crossing a few streams we were suddenly walking through snow.
As a Canadian, who recently moved to a very hot and humid city, I was in heaven. The hike gave me lots of comfort. The air was crisp and the snow beneath my feet brought back memories of home.
Eventually we came across a clearing that would lead us to Dream Lake. My favourite of the 4.
I can see how it got it’s name. Again I was lucky to not have any strong winds, giving me perfect reflections on the lake. We were now able to fully enjoy the impressive Hallett Peaks.
But we weren’t done, still more trail ahead to get to Emerald Lake and we were now walking through full snow. Fellow visitors equipped with sneakers or flip flops struggled, many had to stop and turn back. With the right shoes though it’s a very achievable hike. As we approached the end, fellow hikers encouraged us to keep going, that it would certainly be worth it.
Yup, they were right. Emerald Lake was worth it. Being the highest of the 4 lakes it was still iced over and only starting to melt. Even so you could see the colour of the water was different. I imagine that’s why it’s called Emerald Lake.
The mountains behind it were covered with snow and sparse evergreens. Regardless of the season, this lake would be a great way to finish the hike.
After spending a good amount of time at Emerald Lake, just taking in the views, it was time to head back. The descent was easier, though slippery at times on the snow. We took in more of the surrounding views.
When we arrived back at the beginning of our hike we did the Bear Lake trail. This was easy in comparison as it’s a flat path around the lake. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a visit. Every time I stopped for a photo I kept thinking, “wow, this is the best angle”. Then I’d walk a few more minutes and be outdone.
The wind started to pick up, rippling the water, and the clouds moved in.
The storm was coming, and we had to catch a flight home.
Planning your Hike
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What to wear and pack
Based on my experience in May I found the weather really comfortable. It was in the mid-teens (celcius) so I layered. I had a tanktop, baselayer shirt and a raincoat/windbreaker and I was comfortable the entire time. My pants were a thermal legging and I had good water resistant hiking boots that easily got me through the snow.
For the most part all my thermal wear and outdoor gear is from Patagonia. I love their products and fair-trade ethos so I tend to spend more with them. My hiking boots are from a French brand called Aigle. They’re comfortable and have always kept me dry.
Because it’s not a very long hike we were satisfied with a small energy bar when we got to the end. As with all hiking trails in RMNP, bring lots of water and wear your sunblock.
The summer is the most popular time to do these trails. Then you will get wildflowers and no snow. The fall obviously brings some stunning colours to the foliage. I personally loved the end of May because you’re likely to get remains of the snow and I found this added to the landscape. This trail is open all year so you can enjoy it in the winter too. If you go in the winter, there are store in Estes that rent snowshoes or crampons to strap onto your boots. This will help with the ice and snow.
There’s a parking lot at the beginning of Bear Lake trail, but be prepared as it can fill up quickly. Part of the reason for getting to the trails early was to get parking. Because it fills up during busy periods, the visitors center in Estes offers a shuttle bus to the trail head. This is a great solution if you’re visiting during a busy period of the year. The May long weekend was busy for RMNP. But we were able to get parking around 8am. The lot was full when we left around 11am.
I cannot stress the importance of early morning hikes for landscape photography. There was mild wind, giving me breathtaking reflections in the lake and the overcast skies mean’t I didn’t have to battle hash light and shadows. I also made sure to check the weather the night before. I knew that winds were going to pick up closer to noon with chances of thunderstorms. So planning around these periods is helpful.
I used my 16mm for the majority of my shots, I wanted to go as wide as possible. If you’re photographing in the winter remember the cold weather will drain your batteries. Keep them in your jacket pockets, close to your body and consider getting some hand warmer packets to use on them as well.
This was also the first time I tested out my new toy, the Peak Design Capture Camera Clip. It was a game changer. I was able to easily fasten my camera onto my backpack strap, freeing up my hands and making me more mobile for the hike. This was especially useful when I was sliding around in the snow. Just one less thing to worry about. I’ll never hike again without it.
The trails weren’t too challenging. Bear Lake trail was very easy, it’s a great place to walk if you’ve got kids or elderly in your group. The other three lakes were more difficult but still manageable. Nymph Lake was the easiest trail, with a developed path. The second two lakes weren’t clear of snow, so if you’re going in shoulder seasons, be prepared to walk through snow. The entire hike, there and back, took us about 2.5 hour and I was stopping frequently for photography.
Entrance into Rocky Mountain National Park differs based on how long you’re staying. It was $20/ day for the car. See here for the full price list.